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What a difference a year makes: The UFCs dwindling heavyweight division

Mirko Cro Cop's announcement that he will be leaving the UFC for the Japanese startup DREAM organization is just one more hit that the organization's heavyweight division has taken as of late. With Randy Couture all but departed, Andrei Arlovski with possibly one foot out the door, and Tim Sylvia wanting a raise, it might be time to bring back Jeff Monson.

Cue chirping crickets.

Don't get me wrong, the loss of Cro Cop on its own might not be the end of the world. With three fights remaining on his contract, he would have had to knock off two top contenders to bounce back from embarrassing back-to-back losses if he ever wanted even a chance at a title shot.

And let's call a spade a spade — those losses were embarrassing.

I don't need to mention Cro Cop getting his head kicked into the third row by a man known for his submission skills because the Gabriel Gonzaga knockout is on every UFC highlight reel.

Let's just focus on Cro Cop's lackluster performance (broken rib notwithstanding) against Cheick Kongo, who prior to UFC 75 had one of the more boring fights of 2007 against Assuerio Silva — the fight that featured Joe Rogan saying (and I'm paraphrasing):

"Someone needs to kidnap Cheick Kongo and put him in a wrestling camp for six months."

Keep in mind that, prior to UFC 75, Dana White went on record as saying:

"I am convinced that we will see a completely different Cro Cop (than the one who faced Gonzaga)... I still do not know who his opponent will be if he wins against Kongo, but a fight against Randy Couture for the title is possible. Anything is possible here."

White had one thing right: Anything was possible, including an apparent retreat to Japan for the once feared striker with the hopes that he might one day return to redeem himself inside the Octagon.

But what happens until then?

Consider that at one time the UFC had eight of the top 10 fighters currently listed on MMAWeekly's Top 10 Heavyweights list (as of Feb. 6) under contract. Now, to think that the organization could potentially lose -- at most -- four of those eight in less than 12 months is staggering.

And to think, just a month ago we were saying how the middleweight division is the UFC's weakest. Pshaw!

Just by looking at the dwindling talent pool in the heavyweight division, it's no wonder that a fighter with a "one-fight win streak" (if there is such a thing) is rumored to be next in line for a title shot. While Fabricio Werdum is a tough competitor, fighters named the UFC's #1 contender typically have put together back-to-back wins or better, unless they are a former champion.

But to play devil's advocate, who else could the UFC give a title shot to?

Arlovski's prolonged contract dispute is clearly keeping him from a title shot (despite recent lackluster performances), but it also might just be the smartest thing this guy's done.

Unless, the UFC is holding an ace up its sleeve — like waiting to announce the signing of Josh Barnett or some other top Heavyweight contender we're unaware of — they would be foolish not to give in to Arlovski's demands and re-sign him given the growing lack of depth in the division.

In addition, Arlovski is one of only three top heavyweight contenders with consecutive wins (the others being Frank Mir and Kongo) and he's among the most marketable fighters remaining in the division. Moreover, the last time Arlovski lost to a fighter not named Tim Sylvia was March 2002.

While there is something to be said for Frank Mir's performance against the new monster in the division, Brock Lesnar, a win over a UFC newcomer in any other division with a 1-1 record wouldn't put you in line for a title shot. Even Mir has said he expects another tune up fight before being granted a shot at Nogueria.

Remember also: This is the same man who the Nevada State Athletic Commission just last year wouldn't let fight Tim Sylvia until he proved he could beat Antoni Hardonk. Let's not let 90 seconds make us forget recent history.

Cheick Kongo -- the only other top contender with back-to-back wins -- recently gained Top 10 status in MMAWeekly's heavyweight rankings thanks to his win over Cro Cop. While he is a dominant striker, most believe his weaknesses on the ground would be quickly exposed by Nogueria should a title shot come any time soon.

While I know of no existing resource that identifies fighters currently under contract by the UFC, one consistently accurate way to judge a division's depth is by counting the number of fighters who have fought for the organization in the last 12 months — many of whom are still under contract.

With roughly 200 fighters total fighting in the UFC in the last year, some divisions are stacked more than others. The lightweight division, for example, has cleared some 61 fighters, while the heavyweight division boasts only 21.

The bottom line: the UFC needs to retain what few top heavyweight contenders they currently have and that just might mean dishing out the bucks. They did it for Cro Cop, who proved he wasn't worth it, and they should do it for those threatening to leave.

Certainly for Arlovski ... and even Sylvia. Both of them have proven over time that they belong inside the Octagon.

Perhaps just not fighting against one another.

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